I know I won’t have to go far past the promenade to get to where the throngs of people thin out. But I don’t go so far that I’m on my own.
People are paddling, surfing, bending down and examining things, but not swimming…
A heatwave day, but there’s a breeze here. The relief of the cold water. Waves breaking over me. I want to learn the sea, I think. Start heading up the beach, parallel to the shore. Washing the white crests, bobbing above breakers, slowly, slowly getting beyond a cleft in the cliff ridge.
Some saltwater goes in my eye. I close it for a while and enjoy feeling half there as the waves dance past and over me. I’m trying to read them. They’re diagonalling. I keep touching my foot to the sea floor, decide this is called footing.
Ten minutes later I turn back. Slowly down the beach then out when I think I see my stuff. It’s still further down.
A woman in a sarong said she’d been worried when she didn’t see me come back after I went past half an hour ago. Would have told someone. I thought I was going so slowly I said. You are, but the sea isn’t she replied.
I think, I’m still only at phonics stage with my sea reading…
Utterly unconsciously I have been doing more and more front crawl strokes without taking a breath, as if I’m aiming to turn entirely aquatic and stay immersed. Today at Helmsley Outdoor Pool I did lengths on three or four breaths. When I breathe, I come back into the world. In the two swims I describe below, the water spaces were portals to different times, worlds and people. I realise that sounds a bit Mr Benn. But Sparth Reservoir sits between a canal where barges with calligraphic swirls of names float past at nineteenth century speed and where a man in a flat cap got out and stood on the towpath for a few minutes, whilst at the same time a Pacer train to Manchester sped past on the other side of the reservoir. Me, scything the water between them, somewhere between a then and a now. There at all, thanks to the swimmers who had campaigned over the years for Sparth to stay as a much-loved swimming spot, which means that it’s one of the few UK reservoirs with a “Warning” swimming sign, rather than just a “No Swimming” injunction. https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/news/watch-friends-sparth-reservoir-new-13211215
Vicky in Sparth said wistfully, “Water’s my element”. So many of us feel like that. We mermaid and merman past each other, recognising each other in the encounter. Vicky works for the probation service and drives to Sparth Reservoir to wash off the stresses of an increasingly fraught working environment. She was already in, bobbing along in a red swimming cap, owning the water, a beacon telling me it was safe. She pointed out where I could get in, a muddy little beach among the trees where I’d scrambled down a bank (It turned out people usually get in via some steps on the footpath along here):
We chatted a bit about our element, then she told me about the overhanging trees, a sort of archway through the water someone had already mentioned when they were telling me about Sparth in the library that morning. I’d gone to Marsden to perform my show about Northern women in the library in the evening, then run a creative writing workshop the next day. I’d googled “Wild swim” and “Marsden” and found accounts of the battle to keep this water open to all. Some of the library women came here regularly. One of them said maybe there was something about liking to swim outside and doing creative activities like writing.
I followed Vicky through the dark brown water, a little curled up yellow leaf floating past us as if it had made itself into it’s own life raft. She pointed out hazards under the water as we swam under the trees where they swept the surface of the water- a rock somewhere over there, something metal there. This green tunnel was yet another world where I could imagine, when it wasn’t cloudy, shafts of sunlight would dapple through the branches taking you somewhere more magical and other than Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride could ever manage. A bower, a place to dream away from the footpath and the canal. I told Vicky about running writing courses and how I live near Gormire Lake, at the foot of Sutton Bank (“It’s like a fairytale there”, someone will tell me in another lake) and could imagine taking people to swim there after they’ve been writing. “I would love to come on that!” Vicky says. The combination of writing and swimming suddenly seeming perfect to both of us as the wind set the water surface scribbling in sentences and sentences of cursive.
It was the hottest day of the year. People had come out en masse to enjoy the weather at former opencast mine, now RSPB nature reserve St Aidans, near Leeds. There were shoals of young people sitting on the wide, grassy banks, cans, towels, the hum of rap filling the air around them like midges. “Are you from FLOWS group?” I asked two women sitting on a bench with their dogs. They looked baffled, possibly thinking I was asking about somebody called Flo. Then I spotted a group of women sitting on big blankets and rugs. Dry robes and towels scattered around. Picnic-sharing in progress. I realised this was probably people from the Facebook group whose photos and accounts of the peaceful “Caroline’s Lake” had made me want to come and experience it. I had a moment of wanting to say hello, but then a more compelling moment of wanting to step into the clear water surrounded by reed beds.
I will confess at this point, although many open water swimming accounts involve big groups of people sharing tea, cake and camaraderie, I mainly swim to be without words or people (though not necessarily without cake). Or at least, to be without the effort to be a certain way for people. I love a short encounter though. Swimmer to swimmer. Or swimmer to place and time. Other people’s presence can make me feel safe, but I don’t necessarily want to be immersed in it. Only sometimes is it my element.
It was perfect to step into the water and breast stroke away from the picnickers, from the woman nuzzling her Newfoundland in a beautiful aquatic duet, away from the banging of the young people’s tunes, to the other side of the lake. Towards where a swimmer with a yellow tow float and a black wetsuit was bobbing along next to the reeds. Black headed gulls looked, then looked away. I stayed far from the swans who had been keeping their heads under water as I passed on the path so they looked more like decapitated white birds ready to go in the oven for roasting. The temperature was 29 degrees and although it was cold on entry, my skin and the water began to feel like they were the same temperature. I thought I saw more swimmers at the top of the lake, white arms rising and falling, but then they soared, became the Vs of marsh harriers, their grey underside passing over head like shadows.
I caught up to the woman and we talked about how it’s normally quieter. How she feels safe to come swim here on her own. It’s open. More open than fairytale Lake Gormire near me which has trees crowding round it. Here we’re held in the bowl of the lake, in a wider green bowl stretching out to trees, to houses, to the horizon. 17 million gallons of water flooded this plain in 1988 when the banks of the River Aire collapsed. It was still an open cast mine then. Fourteen more years of the air thrumming with dust and machines. Including “Oddball”, the dragline excavator (Basically GIANT digger) who used to stalk through here on metal legs and now sits like a beached ship at the entrance to the reserve. Occasionally kids sit in the cabin on open days.
She turns back and I carry on. The breeze is strong and as I turn round to swim a line through the middle of the lake, the waves slap me repeatedly in the face. I switch direction and find a diagonal course. A reddening runner with a bare chest runs past. A couple on matching bicycles. A staggering of backpackers, many of whom probably know the names of birds. Maybe they’re listing them in notebooks. Waves of handwriting. Maybe they’re listening out for the booming of a bittern in the reeds (Once bittern, twice shy? I hope that’s an ornithologists joke). I can hear shrieks, calls, caws. A sheep’s low groan. I begin to feel cold. Gladly. Knowing it’ll buy me a few more minutes of coolness once I’m back on dry land. I haul back. Eventually I see the woman again. She says she’s got rid of her tow float. Half apologetically she says she’s been out, come back in again and is just “Bimbling around” now. I think of how the move from wild to mild swimming probably happens when you abandon a purpose or equipment or goals and just bimble (It turns out that in the new taxonomy which has seen Lowther North and Saville Colliery’s vanished, the path round this lake is called “Bower’s Bimble” by the RSPB, though to the swimmers this is always “Caroline’s” and I wish I knew who she was).
I think of the shoals of men who used to laugh and live and share food here. Who had a purpose everyday. Some of them would have been on the outside. Maybe they wrote this or drew it. Documented the end. Most of them will miss it. Will have been in their element.
There is so much blue here, blue and white with a sidenote of green. I am partly here for the light blue of the pool bottom, the rich blue of the pool tiles and the electric blue of the sky. Helmsley Pool has one of the best skies going. It’s huge here on top of the North Yorkshire Moors and the clouds put on a different show every time. Often there’s big, chunky, white-woolly ones you could eat. Yesterday, a goat, a mussel, the outline of Spain. Many of the June afternoons here are quieter than they should be. But yesterday there were three adults playing with a ball in the shallow end and later, two of the lifeguards played catch with an inflatable ball that I threw back to them a couple of times when it landed next to me.
The light shadows the waves into interlocking rings of pulsing, white light on the bottom of the pool. There are fuzzier, jigsaw bits which are the shadows of the trees on one side. And I myself blanked out all the sun to make a gliding, white block. I didn’t used to see as much of the pool bottom. I craned, head up, alternating between the tips of the trees in the fields over the fence, the sky and the pool itself. The kaleidoscope of blue, sometimes grey, and green. But since learning front crawl last summer, I alternate between immersing myself in the play of light in the quieter world of underneath and the playing of fellow swimmers in the world above. When there’s only me in the pool, I don’t do lengths (never really like them) but loops. I remember the feeling last summer when I’d finally managed to get the front crawl breathing. I looped round and round, my arms leading the way in a Superman glide, flying, as free as my body will ever be.
I didn’t used to know how okay (and necessary) it was to have this blue. I didn’t used to consciously know how important it was that I feel happier about the changing rooms here than most others. Helmsley feels the need to apologise about it’s basic changing facilities on the website but the grass and the changing room lino feels soft on my feet as I move between it and the pool. It isn’t echoey, there are no fluorescent lights. The one shower outside is tepid and eases the transition between swimming water and drying air. If there were pubes in the plughole, you wouldn’t be able to see them anyway.
This is my home pool. Since seeing a little sign for an outdoor pool in my first summer in North Yorkshire in 2012, I have come every summer. I remember in 2013 not being able to come as much as I wanted- I was Poet in Residence for the Glastonbury Festival, then did a three week run at the Edinburgh Fringe. My brain felt foggy until October. I didn’t quite make a connection then between swimming here and feeling better, but I knew that a beautiful late August day when I was back, but by which time the pool had closed, left me with a small grief for an untaken swim. I waited all the months until the next June to relieve it.
As I became better at doing the things my body and brain needed to do, and at treating sensory satisfaction as a priority, I stopped counting the cost of the petrol from Thirsk to Helmsley and the half hour to drive here, and began coming as much as I could. Then I realised I was counting down winter and spring days until the opening of the pool. Counting down again until it would close at the end of the summer holidays. Very slowly, I recognised that the outside air on my shoulders, the view of the trees while I swam, the mild cradling of the water, made me feel more alive than (almost) anything else I do- and that feeling alive might possibly be the point of being alive. Each summer itself the pool would be battling for life- an appeal for funds, updates about how they were managing to stay open (I remember this confusing me in 2012, Olympic year, surely there’d be lots of funds for this sort of thing now we’d all agreed that access to activity would make us a happier, healthier nation). Every year there’d be a new addition. The showers, a new fence, this year, after a bumper £120k of council and EU money, a whole new pool tank, surround and fence.
The pool now opens a bit earlier (end of May) and closes a bit later (more into September) but last year I finally took action to extend my own swimming year. The sea, Gormire Lake, Ellerton Lake, the Tees also became my lifegivers. Almost to the point that I felt like I’d sped out of Helmsley Pool. It couldn’t hold the lengths I could now do with front crawl, felt a bit warm. But this year, I realise that I need this type of swimming too. (Particularly as there are still quieter days and times). I need the blue. I sometimes need swims that are not even a slight shock to the body. The uterine heat. My last couple of sessions, I’ve alternated head up breast stroke and immersed front crawl, swapping between the two brain-modes. Taking everything in, paying attention versus thinking and feeling only the next stroke ahead. Only in the moment, before focusing again on how to be as alive as it’s possible to be for another summer.
I’ve only just found out that sea at the same temperature as fresh water will often feel warmer because it’s denser. Just one of many examples of watery physics magic that make me go “Ooh” whilst never really being likely to understand it. Before going in here, I’d been in the sea once this year, on May 20th at Tynemouth Longsands. A group of kids running in and out in t shirts and shorts gave me confidence that there weren’t hidden riptides. I’d stayed in half an hour feeling like my insides were a warm element that could possibly heat the whole sea if only it wouldn’t freeze me first. I’d like to swim in the sea more but it is much more unpredictable than most lakes and rivers, and certainly outdoor swimming pools. It also seems to involve people consulting tide tables, wind forecasts, the accumulated ancestral knowledge of fishermen and doing stuff with the moon. None of which are in my area of expertise.
This Sunday I’d been asked to run a writing workshop in Amble in Northumberland. I’d met Paula and Frances of Drywater Arts when they came to my show about Northern women. I talk about Ethel “Sunny” Lowry from Cheshire, the first British woman to swim the British channel (Her cousin’s an artist. You might have heard of him. Something to do with matchsticks). There was a shout and it turns out Frances Anderson was the second woman in one of my show audiences to have swum the channel too. I don’t think I consciously thought “Yes, I’ll take up their offer to run a writing workshop on a June Sunday because then I’ll get to swim in the sea with Frances and she’ll help confirm some of my developing ideas about mild swimming and also possess all this knowledge about tides, winds and moons”, but I wouldn’t put it past my unconscious. At the end, I asked her where was best to swim. She consulted a tidal app on her phone and started talking me through how there’d be no water at Boulmer because it was low tide, but Low Hauxley would probably be good and directing me. Then she suggested she just get her swim kit and come with me. It would be her first time in the sea this year.
We got to Low Hauxley, a lovely strip of beach just outside Amble, overlooking Coquet Island and its lighthouse but Frances said that tide as too low, we’d be swimming in rocks. All I’d seen was that we’d have to walk quite far to the sea- which is why local knowledge is invaluable. We drove to the next beach down, Amble Links and got into our gear (I already had my swimsuit on underneath my dress while Frances looked to have perfected impressive and complex towel-covered manoeuvres). After the wetsuit of Ullswater I was relieved to be keeping it minimal with just a cossie, neoprene socks (my feet get coldest) and earplugs. No swimming cap. I wasn’t intending to do front crawl and get ice cream head. We walked in together and I was pleasantly surprised at how okay the water felt on my skin. Much less icy than Ullswater even though it was probably technically colder. Frances’ approach to immersing herself was to start splashing the water in front of her vigorously, creating her own sort of sea tunnel to step into. Mine seems a bit more introverted. If I think it’s going to be really cold I sort of hug myself really tightly, then let go and sink into the water. Both ways, we were soon fully in and swimming under wisps of white candy floss cloud in a blue sky and a darker sea. One dark green-blue tent village after another popping up then collapsing in front of us every second.
Lakes don’t suddenly start wobbling in front of you like a jelly someone’s put a spoon in. I followed Frances as she moved into an economical front crawl South down the coast, happily prepared to follow at a slow breast stroke distance but she slowed down too and we drew level and chatted, the sea sometimes nearly tipping me nearly into her path as if we were on a giant wobble board. She talked about a fisherman being surprised when she said she sometimes knew there was something other going on with the sea. Not fully predictable by tide or current, but something telling you it was dangerous. He was surprised she knew that language too. I could imagine it was something you’d read in your body, as well as by triangulating what you could see around you in the water and the air. I don’t know how to read it yet, but I know it’s there.
But the way she talked about preparing for the swim, about getting to know herself and her body and her limits and respecting the sea’s limits and the boat pilot’s knowledge, sounded more like what I’m reaching for than the packaged wild swimming thing. It sounded careful and committed. Not about being furthest or fastest or best but an insistent, gentle calling, prepared for over many years. Those who rush into it without knowing themselves or the crossing are much less likely to make it.
By now we had crossed and recrossed a section of the beach a few times. Frances pointed out how the sea was sweeping us on a bit of a diagonal. I was less attuned to my surroundings than when I swim on my own. Absorbed in the conversation but sneaking glances behind us to the white lighthouse, up to the white clouds standing out from the blue sky like a 3D image, the yellow dunes on the shore, the undulating glassiness of the water. If I stretched my toes down I could still feel a soft, sandy bottom. My hands were beginning to get a bit colder but I was still comfortable, though it felt right when Frances suggested we get out. Swimming through then standing up in the waves as they broke on to the shore, up with a bit of a stagger like when you’re getting off a rollercoaster ride and the gondolas are still swaying behind you. Again, looking at the time of the picture I’d taken before getting in was the only way to tell we must have been in forty minutes. Frances said that boded well if I was wanting to swim through further into the winter as I’d told her I did. I knew that the cold water shock response gets less and less the more you go in, but she said I’d still be able to get used to lower and lower temperatures than I am now. She said people laugh at her for feeling the draught, needing a cardigan, but she agreed with me that the cold of water is a different thing, often doesn’t feel like cold at all.
I don’t usually talk and swim but it had felt good to talk about swimming while doing it. To talk about the language of the sea. I’d read the writing group several sea poems including American feminist poet Adrienne Rich’s classic “Diving into the Wreck”. Dunno if she’d be a mild swimmer, but I felt like she knew something I’m beginning to know about the sea and the strength of gentleness:
Okay, at Ullswater, there were majestic grey-green hills with their outlines scribbled in the sky and clouds coming off them like smoke. There was just me swimming as silver drops of rain made rings on the lake’s surface and you couldn’t tell whether the rain was coming down from the sky or up from the lake. There was just me, and not even a boat in all the seven and a half miles length of the third biggest lake in England as the sky grumped greyly over trees and shrubs arranged in a Masterchef dish called Textures of Green. Actually there was the steamer, a dot in the distance, chuffing along as I chuffed along with a head up breast stroke taking it all in. But I wouldn’t say this was Wild Swimming.
Or maybe it was, but I want to make a case for Mild Swimming. Which might be a thing or might be bollocks, but lots of my best ideas start with a pun which turns out to be a useful word-shift to another way of looking at things.
I was supposed to be swimming two miles in Windermere with a few hundred other people. We’d have stood in a pack doing a warm up to pumping pop music, then I’d have hung back to make sure I set off at the tail end of the crowd because apparently the swimmers practicing for triathlons swim over people to make sure they get a fast time. Then I’d have gone round some inflated buoys following the course, looking up and around me sometimes, but mainly doing front crawl, twice round in the lap. Then out, compulsory photograph while staggering up the jetty (Buy prints!), a goodie bag (Buy sports bars!) and into a marquee with lots of other people battling neoprene and nylon. I would have done it though. I did the mile last year and got the invaluable tip whilst I was newly battling with front crawl (“Your breath out should be gentle, like a sigh”), bumped into the poet Clare Shaw in the changing tent and blew golden bubbles up through clear water (It was a much warmer day and lake). But on the way this year, my car got a flat tyre. I limped off the road and fortuitously straight into a garage who were able to fit my temporary tyre immediately. It seemed as if I was still meant to be thrashing round Windermere
The reason this had begun to feel less enticing, apart from the weather warning which meant wetsuits were now compulsory and I feel about my wetsuit as I used to about wearing a school tie (“It’s all choking round my neck, do I HAVE to wear it Mum?”), was that the day before I’d been swimming in the River Cam, just down from Grantchester Meadows. Sun on my shoulders, catkins and leaves strewn on top of the water like laurels, stretching my arms out while a breeze blew trees green and silver. I’d posted a photo on Instagram and mentioned my other swims that week, in Helmsley and Jesus Green Lidos.
“Are you a bit of a wild swimmer?” someone had asked, and my instinct was to say “No, I’m a mild swimmer”. Partly because I like a pun. Partly because I don’t much like the phrase “Wild swimming”. It’s become sold as something a bit dangerous when actually it’s rather safe. In a number of senses. It also requires authentically authentic accoutrements to be performed. Like swimming in a whirlpool on top of a mountain which only three people have ever visited. Which instantly makes me want to buy Angel Delight and sip e-numbers by the gallon. So perversely, I’m drawn to something too tame to be wild swimming (A lovely outdoor pool without a whirlpool in sight) but also something that slips the boundaries of this newly commodified thing and goes back to being what swimmers like Roger Deakin intended when they started writing about swimming outdoors. He saw it as a subversion of how we were being shunted away into chemical-filled concrete holes in the ground indoors, instead of rivers, lakes and seas which were increasingly being bought up, sold off and packaged with “Keep Out, Dangerous” signs on them. He also saw it as anti-capitalist. But now swim-lit is a thing, and finding your true wild self is an aspirational thing you can buy in a holiday for a thousand quid, while wearing your expensive trekking gear.
But part of me is also “Ooh, the meadows where Rupert Brooke swam and Virginia Woolf, get me a scone with honey on it now and Roger Deakin was waterlogged and then Joe Minihane wrote about the positive effect on his wellbeing, I’ll have some of that”- so me doing wild swimming IS me mild swimming. However, I also think mild swimming might be a signpost for me of something else. About kindness to myself. About trying to resist the “Buy Everything/Be Everything/Be Your Super Well, Productive Best Life” thing whilst also, to be honest, finding out what my super well, productive best life actually might be. The one that fits ME- not the aspirational one I’m sold though. Also, the one that fits not just the individual me on my own, but somehow connects me to this complicated web of nature/society/world I’m in. (Whilst often being about being away from loads of other humans).
So I thought my flat tyre might have been a sign to save me from the Great North Swim and discover what mild swimming meant for me. But I still arrived at the car park at 2.40pm (My wave was at 3pm, I had pictured the exact sequence of frantic undressing and kit-gathering moves I would need to make it to the waters edge in time). However I was then told by a John West t-shirted steward that it was pre-booked car parking (“Oh sorry, I must have forgotten we had to pre-book last year”, “You wouldn’t have. It’s a new company running it this year, it’s all changed. You can park ten minutes away though”). I took this as the final sign. Drove to Kendal where I’d passed a tyre garage on my way, so I could get a proper tyre fitted and not have to worry about getting home with the temporary tyre you’re only supposed to go at fifty miles an hour. Only to find the mechanic who’d fixed the temporary wheel (at least ten miles away) was there as well picking something up. “You’re supposed to be swimming” he said. “Is there only one mechanic in Cumbria?” I said. As he was clearly the trickster guardian of my swimming I asked him where I should go instead. He said Haweswater even though you’re not allowed to swim there- or Ullswater. I felt like I should follow some rules, even though I’d eschewed the instructions, rules, injunctions and conditions that came with the Great North Swim, and headed for Ullswater.
By then, it was chucking it down. I stalled, was going to go to a cafe in Glenridding but a man was closing it up. Said I’d be alright to swim anywhere as long as I avoided the steamer. Normally the motorboats “would be lethal” but none were out. No one was out. He told me to wear a tow float though (inflatable orange bag thing so you can be spotted and also have somewhere to put your car keys etc). I thought of laughing at our dog when he won’t swim in the rain. Parked up by a beach bit. Went down and felt the water. Decided a wetsuit would be my friend for once, and struggled into it in the driver’s seat of my car. Feeling like I was heading into the unknown but determined. Determined not to have wasted a trip and to find out what mild swimming meant. What swimming my own way means.
I edged in. Went back to the shore for my gloves as the ice hit my hands. Edged in again. Felt warm. Relieved to fall forward into breast stroke. Then swam not too far off the coastline. Gently. I had my Goggles, hadn’t put my cap on. Thought mild swimming meant not doing front crawl if you didn’t want to. Dipped my head under, saw dark green. I didn’t worry about fish or weeds. Felt safe. Cars on the grey ribbon of road with their headlights on. Me at one remove from the water in my neoprene, a bit like being an avatar in a computer game. Looking around. Smoky mountains, an island with trees on, dustbin lid sky and perfect concentric circles skimming the whole lake surface. A yellow leaf floats past, a white and grey feather, no insects. I think of swimming the whole lake (seven and a half miles). How would I know when I was halfway to enough? I still don’t know, which is why I often want to swim further, longer, so I can find out. I was cautious though. Maybe that is mild swimming too. I didn’t have a watch anyway. I love not counting in the water, not knowing the time- even though I then can’t tell ten or a hundred minutes. I must have turned back at about twenty five in the end, because when I checked what time I’d taken an (uncharacteristic) selfie, it was just over fifty minutes earlier. Staggering out over the pebbles I wasn’t as exhilarated as after colder, crawlier swims but I felt like I’d claimed a space I could be in the future. A way of being in places, in waters. “All this, just for me?”- I poured steaming tea from my flask, remembered a time when I couldn’t have afforded the petrol or casually wasted £48 of the Great North Swim entry fee or bought a wetsuit, or even a flask. Tried to beam back the thought that the lake was mine anyway. Everyone’s. The next day I would swim in the sea, head up breast stroke again and the day after that, in an outdoor pool, an hour of determined, immersive front crawl which felt like it used an entirely different bit of brain.
I’ve avoided writing about my swimming until now. It’s been something that is refreshingly not about words. But I feel like words might help me work something out now, for a bit at least- and help me share it too. See you in the depths- and on the surface, swim by swim…